The Rise of the Indie Game

Indie games. They’re something every self-styled gamer has an opinion on, and often a strong one. For some, they represent a return to better, simpler times. Others consider them complete and utter time-wasters that detract from the marvels of modern gaming. Whichever side of the fence you dwell on, indie games are here to stay, so let’s discuss them, shall we?

Evoland
Evoland – An interactive history of gaming

The definition of what makes a game or developer “indie” is rather vague and up to interpretation. Fans of craft beer will understand this struggle – Sam Adams has taken heat from its claims to be the largest craft brewery in the U.S., but the whole point is that craft breweries are small companies who care about the beer more than the business.  So it goes with indie games. Imagine if Blizzard, one of the biggest names in gaming, attempted to claim indie status – there would be the internet version of a riot.

An indie developer is typically a small team with a low budget, which means their games are often quite cheap. If you’re sick of being forced to buy DLC when you’ve already spent half your paycheck on the super-deluxe-extra-special-limited-GOTY edition, an indie game can be a budget-saving alternative. And you even get the warm fuzzies from knowing that your money is going to someone who’s making the games out of love, not because corporate analysts decided they’re lagging in a certain section of the market.

Combined Final Fantasy
Final Fantasy/FFXV Comparison

With such illustrious titles as Diablo III, Call of Duty, and Skyrim kicking about, it’s easy to think we’re in a Golden Age of Gaming. Just look at how far the Final Fantasy franchise has come from 8-bit pixel fights to high-def flying dream creatures. However, as your friend who read Ready Player One fifteen times will remind you, there is more to gaming than top-notch graphics and just plain egregious amount of content. Some people miss the simplicity of Pac-Man and Space Invaders, and indie developers have answered their call. Indie games fulfill the desires of the gaming community that large developers, such as Square Enix, EA, and BioWare, can’t, won’t, or would simply never think to bother with. The big releases continue to impress, but what if you don’t have hours at a time to devote to a game? Or maybe your rusting hulk of a PC isn’t able to keep up with the technical demands of modern games. Perhaps you just need a break from high-intensity graphics overload. Wherever you’re coming from, there’s an indie game for you.

Nidhogg
Nidhogg – All the fun, none of the calories

Let’s look at a few examples. Nidhogg is a great example of a bare-bones indie game. Two players compete in a 2-D pixelated field of simple colors in an arcade-style duel to the death.  The 80’s retro feel is immediately apparent, and the entire goal is to stab your pixely sword into your opponents pixely torso. That’s it – no frills; no DLC; no strategy guides from Prima.

Evoland is another paragon among indie games, and one that should warm the cockles of every old-school gamer. For a mere $10 (at the time of writing), you can purchase a ride through the history of gaming, starting without the luxuries of color or sound, and making your way all the way up to glorious 3-D! The best part? It was made by one guy in 30 hours.

And then there’s the downright weird stuff.  Braid has been twisting brains for several years now, and is already on its way to being considered a “classic.” If your roommate walks by while you’re playing mass-murder simulator Hotline Miami, they might arrange an intervention just on principle. And I personally have an ungodly number of hours logged in the arguably indie Binding of Isaac, which is more or less a disturbing Legend of Zelda clone loosely based on Bible references (although I don’t recall exploding fetuses in jars in the Old Testament).

Hotline Miami
Hotline Miami – Who’s up for an anonymous murder spree?

So, if indie games cover such a wide breadth of genres, and offer a reprieve from the demands of expensive, time-consuming, and hardware straining blockbuster games, why do they get so much flak? The primary answer lies in the title – “Indie” is a word with a lot of baggage, and no small number of people are quick to judge based purely on word association. My college roommate was a total music hipster, so I was exposed to the “indie” word a lot. I still have a twitch reflex when someone says it in casual conversation. But while I’ve managed to push past my reservations to enjoy many genuinely fun games, there are still a lot of people out there who are willing to blindly hate an entire genre based on its name.

There’s another problem right there – “indie” games aren’t a genre any more than “80’s music” is a genre (seriously who’s putting Joan Jett and The Smiths in the same category?). The only thing Shovel Knight has in common with Bastion is that it was made by a small team with a small budget. That’s it. That’s like comparing me to Anna Kendrick because we were born in the same month. The fact that I was in A Capella club in college and did a Pitch Perfect medley is totally beside the point.

Bastion
Bastion – As artistic as you can get

But really, most of the arguments against indie games dissolve under any real scrutiny.  With the recent explosion of small developers pumping out games, it’s easy to point the finger and say they’re low-quality, dime-a-dozen, and have no replayability.  And it’s very true that those games are out there. It’s also true that many indie games are pushing the boundaries of what we traditionally consider a “game” and are constantly exploring new kinds of art and music, as well as how those things are incorporated into gameplay. If you like games, but have been snubbing your nose at the indie stuff, it’s definitely time to reconsider your position – you’re only limiting yourself.

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Kenny S.

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